Interview: Boy Swallows Universe author Trent Dalton and the cast of the Netflix adaptation at the Brisbane red carpet premiere

A lost father, a mute brother, a recovering addict mum, a heroin dealer for a stepfather, and a notorious criminal for a babysitter. Eli Bell is just trying to follow his heart and understand what it means to become a good man, but fate keeps throwing obstacles in his way.

Based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton‘s best-selling novel, Boy Swallows Universe is set to be your next binge-worthy addiction as the “intimately extravagant” series (you can read our review here) arrives on Netflix this week.

Pulling out all the stops for 2024’s first major premiere event, the stars were out in full force in the sunshine state, as Brisbane played host to author Dalton, producers Troy Lum and Andrew Mason, and cast members Simon Baker, Phoebe Tonkin, Felix Cameron, Lee Tiger Halley, Bryan Brown and Travis Fimmel to celebrate.

Our Peter Gray was at the ready, chatting with the cast and creators about the move from page to screen, the fearlessness needed to perform such emotionally demanding roles, and the beauty of the Australian film industry.

Phoebe, before we get to Boys Swallows Universe, I have to just quickly shout out your appearance in Babylon.  Safe to say you made an impression in one of the more memorable sequences.  You were so great, and I really hope the movie finds the audience it so deserved.

Phoebe Tonkin: Oh, thank you.  I love that movie.  Love Margot (Robbie).  Love Damien (Chazelle).  Love the whole thing.

There’s a scene of Frankie’s early one where she’s locked in a part of the house as the family help her deal with her addiction.  You were so amazing in that scene.  Was Frankie the kind of character that sat with you after you finished filming?

Phoebe Tonkin: Yes, but in a very positive way.  I was so lucky to have the book, and, of course, Trent (Dalton, author) was an incredible supporter of the show being made, and of all of us.  I found so much to admire about Frankie.  I know that she’s loosely based on Trent’s mother, so I came away from this project with so much positivity and hope.  It was a true blessing.  I came out of this so inspired.

And because she is a character based loosely on Trent’s mother, do you feel a sense of pressure at all in interpreting that?

Phoebe Tonkin: He came on set a lot.  Like, I think it was my first day of filming, and it must’ve been quite surreal for him…I think just to see (the character) of Eli in the school uniform that was based on Trent’s school uniform, I think that must’ve been surreal.  But we were really lucky.  He was so enthusiastic and so supportive.  A true dream.

Had you read the book prior?

Phoebe Tonkin: Yes, and then I re-read it.  And I would always have it with me on set.  I always had it in my trailer so I could go back and check.  It was so detailed, that book, so it was amazing to read the script and then delve deeper into those pages where he had really scored those scenes.

We see that magical element to the show with the “fortune teller” aspect of Gus.  If you had the ability to tell your younger self something, or to know what would be happening to “future Phoebe”, what would that be?

Phoebe Tonkin: I don’t know if I’d want to know anything.  I think I would just say, “Be patient.  Everything will work out the way it’s meant to work out.”

Troy, when you first read Boy Swallows Universe, was there an immediate reaction for you as a producer in wanting to get this made as a film or series?

Troy Lum: I don’t think you’re ever that optimistic or ambitious as a producer (laughs).  I think we just knew it was really great and we wondered if it could ever get made.

And then it’s not just can we get this made, but can we get this made with this cast? How much of this incredible ensemble is your doing?

Andrew Mason: Most of that is Troy’s doing (laughs).  He’s the smooth-tongued devil.

Troy Lum: I think it’s also Trent.  People read the book and know they have to do this.  If you’re an actor and you read this script, of course you want to be these (characters).  But then it’s also convincing agents to say yes…and that took years off my life (laughs).  We got there in the end.

How many years was it, from when it was first conceived to now?

Troy Lum: I would say it’s 5 years.

I’m from Brisbane, so it added that extra layer of familiarity seeing and hearing these sights.  So often we know other cities are substituted, but I imagine it was always going to be shot in Brisbane, too?

Troy Lum: Oh, for sure.  And there’s extra resonance in being able to shoot in actual (locations).  Like, the Vietnamese restaurant was shot in the actual restaurant.  I think when you do things like that, it can’t help but have that extra dimension to it because it feels so authentic.

We know with the book and with what the show depicts that the material isn’t always family-friendly.  There’s no shortage of kids being placed in peril or colourful language? Is there ever a fear from a producing point of “Have we gone too far?”

Andrew Mason: That’s the beauty of the editing process.  We shoot everything we can in compliance with safety officers and the kids’ parents to make sure they’re okay.  Then when you get to cutting you’re thinking of how the audience will feel if they’re empathising with that kid.  How are they going to react if you push the audience too far?

Troy Lum: Mind you, I have to say we were very lucky to have Felix and Lee, because they were both pretty extraordinary.  I realised very early on in the process that if we didn’t have them, the whole show would’ve been in real trouble.  We got really lucky with those guys.  Like, that first scene where it’s in the park and it’s Eli and Lyle, that scene you see is the first take.  Felix did this performance, and when we called “Cut!”, the whole crew, and they have done seasons of shows and films, they were completely silent.  People in the crew had tears in their eyes, like, “What the fuck was that?”  We had reserved the whole night to shoot this scene, and Bharat (Nalluri), the director, was, like, “We’re done.”  Travis is there saying, “You want me to follow that?” (Laughs).

Lee, congratulations on this.  Man, they put you through the emotional ringer! When you’re first handed this script and your character doesn’t have any dialogue, is there a relief in that initially? Or does it make it harder because so much of your performance is pure expression?

Lee Tiger Halley: It was difficult in the preparation stage.  I didn’t want to go too over the top, so I tried my best to just react and respond.  In terms of being hard, I can’t say I complained.  I mean, watching Felix perform these 4-page monologues and cry, and I’m sitting back just with a smile on my face, it wasn’t too hard (laughs).

I asked Phoebe this about sitting with her character.  How was it for you once the cameras were off? Because there’s a lot of emotion and brutality that your character faces…

Lee Tiger Halley: I had this thing where I would just go to my trailer and try not to un-focus.  Whatever that means, but that’s what I did.

Had you read the book prior?

Lee Tiger Halley: I hadn’t read the book.  My mum had, she’s read every book ever (laughs), but I started reading during the long audition phase.  I got about halfway through before I started (filming).  Then I had all the scripts, and I tried to go back to reading it, but it brought up too many tears, to be honest.

And with this releasing on Netflix internationally, have you prepared yourself for how many eyes are going to be on you and what that could potentially mean for you going forward?

Lee Tiger Halley: (Laughs) I have no idea.  The bigger, the better.  The more people that see it, the better it is for the show.  That’s the hope.  In terms of me? (Laughs) I have no idea.  We’ll see what happens.

Felix, congratulations! You’re incredible in this.  When you’re first reading this script and you realise just how much your character is involved in those early episodes, what’s that feeling for you?

Felix Cameron: Yeah, when I first started doing auditions I had no idea what I was really getting into.  It wasn’t until I read those scripts that I realised, like, “Whoa!” It’s incredible though.  Those emotional scenes…but when you get to those moments they’re less daunting from when you’ve read them.

Looking at your co-stars here, were there any nerves in acting opposite people like Bryan Brown and Travis Fimmel in such intense sequences?

Felix Cameron: Not really, no.  They’re all so nice.  And, for me, I just like to watch other people’s processes, and then think about my own.  They’re such amazing actors.  I had a scene with Bryan, one of them in the car together, and we could just not stop talking! He’s such a great guy to work with.

I have it on good authority from the producers of how much you floored everyone on set during one of your first takes.  Gotta feel good to know how impressed everyone was.

Felix Cameron: Yeah, that felt great.  The coolest thing for me was that they set a lot of time for that, and I got it done pretty quickly, and thought, “Ooh, this is cool!” I thought I was going to have to stay up all night for filming, but, luckily, it just came in that moment.

And Zac Burgess, who plays the older version of your character, is there much collaboration between the two of you in getting the same kind of mannerisms and characterisation?

Felix Cameron: Yeah, I had a talk with him.  But it’s mostly still just us trying to bring ourselves to the show.  Zac had a look at some of the things I did, some of my mannerisms… I think he’s done a really great job.  Zac should be proud of what he’s done.

Your character, Travis, doesn’t mince his actions around the kids.  How is it for you as an actor to be involved in such sequences and sprout such dialogue opposite younger actors?

Travis Fimmel: They say that kids and animals are the worst to work with, but this script is so heavily dependent on their characters.  They carry this show on their shoulders, and what they did with it blew my mind and took it way beyond what it could be.  Beyond what I thought it could be.  They’re very, very talented, little Felix and Lee.  I’m so happy for them.  I don’t want them to be actors (laughs).  I told them to quit after this.

Might have some differing opinions with Felix, given that I hear he mastered a one take scene with you?

Travis Fimmel: Oh yeah.  I had to catch up to him.  He did it in one take.  Usually takes me about 50.  Made me look like a dummy, that’s for sure.

You’ve certainly found a home in the Australian television series long form as of late.  Do you find there’s better opportunities in television? Given they can so often detail some stories more efficiently.

Travis Fimmel: It’s whatever material is good.  I’ve been very lucky in Australia, and with the streaming networks now, they offer us a lot more opportunities to come home and work.  We all want to work in Australia, you know?  I’ve done the whole “Hollywood” bullshit, and we want to work here, man.  Now with the streaming services it’s more viable, and these scripts? There’s so many beautifully talented writers here in Australia.  And we have a different environment, a different mentality, and it’s great that people can see that.

Trent, a massive congratulations to you.  How special is it for you to have this premiere here in Brisbane?

Trent Dalton: Oh, it had to be here in Brisbane.  Had to be.  And that’s not always easy to happen.  I’m incredibly grateful to the filmmakers who agreed that it had to be here.  When I was growing up I could only dream of seeing a story like this on my television.  I would’ve loved coming home, have some streaming capability where I could watch some story about a kid who breaks into Boggo Road gaol to see his mum on Christmas day!  I would’ve loved that story, and I love that so many other people agree.  I’m so proud that we’re telling these types of Aussie stories that are so nuanced.  We’re not just talking about Sydney lawyers, you know?  It’s a story about a kid from the outskirts of Brisbane.  It’s flippin’ amazing!

No offense to Sydney lawyers…

Trent Dalton: (Laughs) LOVE Sydney lawyers!  God bless them.  They need a little love.

You have so much to do with the show, being that it is based on your book.  Are there nerves on your end? It can always be such a tricky manoeuvre to adapt from page to screen…

Trent Dalton: Oh, absolutely.  I should have t-shirts made that say “Don’t F it up!”  So many people have told me that, “Don’t F it up”, and, yeah, it’s a big deal.  I wrote this story and I never expected it to mean something.  I underestimated how many people have been through (the same stuff).  How many young mums out there are going through it as we speak.  They’re the ones that come up to me at book events and thank me for telling their story, or their dad’s story, or my step-dad’s story.

How was it for you to see these characters brought to life? I mean, you’ve written them, but then you have someone like Phoebe Tonkin playing your mother, and she’s involved in some truly harrowing sequences…

Trent Dalton: It is harrowing.  There’s a scene where Phoebe gives everything! And it’s as deep and as dark as I’ve seen an actor ever gone, and it’s harrowing watching that stuff.  And I sat right next to my mum when I was watching it.  And my daughters, her granddaughters, were right next to her, and she just says, “Yeah, that’s how it was.”  It’s tough, but it’s beautiful, because once you see the later episodes and where my mum went, and they are beautiful places, places far different from where she starts, it’s just a blip in her life.  It’s very deep and very powerful.  I sometimes think is it too hard to watch, and my mum will say, “Trent, what is it about my 60-something years on this Earth tells you I can’t take a bit of Netflix television?”  It’s such a cool, Aussie mum thing to say.  Aussie mums are badass.  Especially single Aussie mums.  They’ve been through some shit.  And my mum’s been through everything.

All 7 episodes of Boy Swallows Universe are streaming on Netflix from January 11th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.